Originally published in The Northern Light
Driving through 2.5 miles of granite takes much more time than one might realize. Whittier, Alaska is only accessible by road through the Anton Anderson Memorial tunnel, which runs through Maynard Mountain. Being the longest combined road and rail tunnel in North America, the tunnel is on a strict schedule. With different hours in the summertime, the tunnel is open to tourists from 5:30 a.m. – 11:15 p.m. If you miss the last tunnel you are stuck in Whittier for the night.
Whittier is known as the Gateway to Prince William Sound. With a small boat harbor, Whittier has excellent fishing opportunities. Beyond fishing, the sound is home to many tidal glaciers, glaciers that can be seen kayaking or by taking one of the many glacier cruises offered in the summertime.
The quirky town didn’t always have a habit of attracting summertime tourists and cruise ships. The small area was part of a route used by the native Chugach people to reach the Prince William Sound.
The ice free harbor was an ideal spot for the U.S. Military to place a base during World War II. During the Second World War Alaska was a prime spot. Ideally located and hidden from the action, the port of Whittier began as a military facility., complete with facilities to house thousands of troops if need be. The Buckner Building, which looms over the town as an ever constant reminder of its militaristic past, was known as a city under one roof. Able to house a thousand troops, the building was outfitted with a bowling alley, jail, church, and a theatre. All the priorities and pleasures of life could be handled within the walls of the facility.
Today, the building stands abandoned. The military no longer needed to take advantage of the port and by the late 1960s, the building was no longer is use.
Up until late 2014, visitors could explore the abandoned structure. The eeriness of the building made for an excellent photo opportunity, becoming an Alaskan photographer rite of passage.
Keep driving past the Buckner building and find dirt roads to many trailheads. Keep going, and on the left you’ll find Cove Creek. The creek leads into a serene cove that one can walk right up to. The water is clear and is an excellent place to explore Whittier’s natural side.
If you’re getting hungry, drive into “town” for some fresh seafood. One of the best places in town is the Swiftwater Cafe.
Magaret Varlamos, who owns the Varly’s Swiftwater Seafood Cafe with her husband, lives in Whittier only in the summertime. She encourages people to take advantage of beautiful summer days in Whittier.
“I love it, it’s the best. We have the ocean, we have the mountains, we have everything. In the winter time, I live in Anchorage so I’m not far away,” Varlamos said. “There’s a lot of good things to do. Use a hiking trail, use the water, go fishing or kayaking and everybody should eat at the Swiftwater because it’s the best food in Alaska.”
Varly’s Swiftwater Seafood Cafe is going into their twentieth season with no sign of slowing down. The quintessentially nautical theme is just another reminder that Whittier is by the sea, and the wide array of fish on the menu proves it. While waiting for the meal to be brought to out check out the old photos of ships that cover every square inch of wall space in the building. Then, sit below fish netting and old buoys while you eat your crab cakes straight from the sea or enjoy shrimp straight out of Prince William Sound.
Wherever you travel, you should always seek out locally made souvenirs. Nothing is more personal and connected to the place than an object made by someone who’s inspired by their home. Log Cabin Gifts in Whittier is the place to go for handmade, local, and artisanal Alaska or Whittier accessories and souvenirs.
Full-time Whittier resident Brenda Tollman has been living in Whittier for the last 34 years. She has been running Log Cabin Gifts for 25 years and crafts over 90 percent of all the products for sale inside. Tollman makes carvings, leather goods, jewelry, ornaments and a multitude of other gifts. She also created any of the carved signs you see around the town of Whittier.
“I was in California in 1982 and the economy sucked. So, I came to Whittier and we had a small boat harbor. I’m a sign painter so I started lettering boats for fifty bucks an hour and away I went,” Tollman said.
When Tollman arrived in Whittier the town was just ten years old, there were 400 residents, and there was no pavement. Although majority of Whittier’s population lives in the Begich Towers, Tollman does not. She has two units in the towers where she keeps and makes her crafts for her shop.
Some may wonder how people can live in such an isolated place.
“It’s a real peaceful existence,” Tollman said.
Visiting the Whittier Harbor Store is an experience in itself. A payphone out front and buoys scattered around for landscaping keep the strong nautical and pre-1990s feeling alive. Walk inside and find a small TV — sitting between a shiny new box of new Xtratufs and a box of Slim Jims — playing old black and white movies on mute. From birthday cake Oreos to a new raincoat, the harbor store may have what you need.
At the counter, you’ll find Mike Testa, originally from Southern California, who’s been helping his friend run the harbor store for six summers now.
“Obama did such a bang-up job on the economy that where I’m from there aren’t any jobs. So I [came] here to help my friend run the harbor store,” Testa said.
Testa has a little prank he likes to play on unsuspecting shop-goers. It’s called the Pink Mamba, and you’ll have to visit to see what happens, and when you do you’ll get proof. Testa hands our professionally made business cards as proof to people he’s played the Pink Mamba prank on. So far this summer, he’s given away 750 cards.
Beyond the pranks and the gifts and the fish, Whittier is home some incredibly beautiful and isolated areas, including coves where the water is so clear you can dangle your feet in and you can’t differentiate the water from the air. You can be greeted by wildlife right at the docks. Cascading waterfalls are visible just seconds after entering the town. Whatever brings you to Whittier — the history, the quirks, the seafood, the recreational opportunities or as a diving board for jumping into somewhere more remote — it’s worth driving through a mountain for.